Theology and Mystery - Part 1

Faith in a mysterious, incomprehensible God seems to imply a contradiction. Faith demands that we declare Him certainly to exist, even to exist in a certain way. Mystery seems to silence any talk about Him at all. To know things about God, the believer may object, is to predicate things about Him; therefore, our ideas, abstracted from created things, must be applicable to God. Consequently, there is a likeness between God and creatures, which seems abhorrent to the utter transcendence of God. Rather, he would argue, we must believe in certain things about God, without knowing them. For, “we walk by faith, and not by sight.”1 If knowledge of God is repugnant to the believer, however, utter ignorance of God seems to devoid faith of any content. One could say along with Cleanthes:

But if our ideas, so far as they go, be not just and adequate, and correspondent to his real nature, I know not what there is in this subject worth insisting on. Is the name, without any meaning, of such mighty importance?2

Pious belief in a God beyond the grasp of any finite intellect and desire to preach meaningful truths about Him seem to be at an impasse. To unravel this paradox, to justify the testimony of faith and the science of theology, it is necessary to understand more deeply the character of our knowledge of God. Rather than destroying God’s inscrutability, formal theology deepens His mystery by directing the mind toward what is beyond its comprehension.3

1. 2 Cor. 5:7
2. Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part IV, 158
3. Although I will use only Questions 1-12 of the Summa Theologica (S.T.), which concern knowledge of God that can be grasped by unaided human reason, the thesis still applies to knowledge of God had by faith through Revelation. For, even revealed truths are understood through words, whose concepts are abstracted from created things. Therefore, even knowledge by Revelation does not attain to the essence of God and does not oppose His mystery.


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